03 February 2021

Solaris: Desert Hunt – Photo Real Concept Techniques – Jose Borges



My name is Jose Borges and I’m a concept artist working in film, games, and TV, most recently on the upcoming volume of Love Death and Robots, and Valorant Trailers. From reference gathering, to final product, today I’ll be going over the process I use most for photo-realistic concept design using one of my own personal vehicle projects. This process will also work for practically anything you want to do, so don’t worry, it’s not strictly only for vehicles.

Thinking Process

First off, I should mention that before starting on a new concept you should always try to have an initial idea to work from. What I mean by this is that, instead of going blind into an empty canvas without any idea of what you want to make, you should spend some time thinking of something in your head and go through the motions of how you would execute the idea. The reason I believe this to be extremely important in any design process is that aimlessly drawing up ideas for something and hoping you come up with something cool along the way more often than not results in burning out more quickly and frustration if the ideas don’t make sense. This is what makes many people give up without ever really getting anywhere.

If, for example, you wanted to make a new vehicle design, think about the type of vehicle, what the purpose of the vehicle would be, the general mood or feeling that is driving you to make this vehicle, the steps you would need to take to create it, etc. By doing this you are getting the preliminary problem solving done in your head, where you can rework the idea an infinite amount of times extremely quickly with zero stress on execution, which will help you work faster and more precisely once you actually start drawing.


The first thing anyone should do right after the thinking process I just talked about is to gather references. I’m sure everyone has heard it a million times, but the reference is extremely important for a smooth design process. Reference will help you stay consistent with your preferred style, design language, mood, lighting, and everything else in between. Without it, you are left to work entirely from imagination, which can sometimes be good for experimentation purposes, but it can lead you down a very inconsistent path resulting in a design that may feel disconnected from purpose and lacking believability.

I tend to like using Pinterest for my reference gathering expeditions. You can create as many boards as you like and organize everything all in one place, making it easy to find what you need without using up storage space on your PC. On there it is also extremely easy to find related ideas thanks to the site giving you similar images after clicking on one, which speeds up the process even more.

For this vehicle design I’ll be talking about I wanted to have something that felt retro, but somewhat hashed together with parts scavenged from different vehicles at the same time because the world I’m designing for is more dystopian and broken. I looked for images and designs of retro vehicles, as well as others that were more Mad Max style to help me understand what makes those designs work and how I could apply the same believability to my own design idea. I used references to answer questions like, ‘what makes a car retro?’ and ‘what would a scavenged retro vehicle look like?’.



After the reference gathering stage I jump into the sketching phase. This is where I take everything I’ve been thinking about up to this point and make a couple of different visual representations to work from. Since I spent time thinking about my idea before I started sketching, I didn’t need to make a bunch of sketches before I found something that worked for what I wanted to do. About two or three sketches were all that I needed before deciding on the one I would move forward with.

Some people really care about having their sketches be super polished and beautiful, but I personally don’t think that’s necessary for this process. I only take sketches to a point where I can tell what the design is going to be. For me, spending more time making a sketch pretty when you already know the direction it’s going to go in is just a waste of time, energy and brain power for the other parts of the process. If what you are going for is just a well polished drawing and nothing more, then by all means make that sketch as beautiful as you want, but for a photo realistic concept you don’t need to worry about the way a sketch looks, as long as you understand the ideas it is conveying

Initial Steps and Background


Having a background for your design really helps to sell the idea. So, for this piece, I photo bashed a simple background, which would serve as a location this vehicle would normally operate in, as well as a way to help me mold the lighting and value structure of the image.

This is important because it accents the vehicle’s purpose, plus without realistic lighting and values, your design can become disconnected from realism. I then gave the background a simple motion blur to suggest the vehicle can move quite fast and painted in some shapes in the distance to suggest a desolate settlement of sorts to add to the story.

You don’t always need to do this, but if you have the time, I’ve found that a lot of clients in the professional field love it when concepts have this extra level of storytelling incorporated.

Photobashing and Paintover


After that, it becomes quite simple to photobash images onto my sketch to pull color and texture information from, while matching it to the lighting the background establishes. I looked for images from my reference that already had similar information to my sketch and simply cut out those parts, pasted them in place, color corrected and painted on top of them to mold and incorporate them into the design.

Rarely is it a good idea to just cut and paste a photo without working on top of it because you’ll just be left with an image that has no design of your own. Paint on top of the images with simple brushes by sampling color and values from the photos in order to give them the structure and design you desire. Sometimes some images take a bit more finagling than others in order to keep to the design and shape language you are aiming for, but Photoshop gives you all the tools you need to work them into the piece.

Helpful Tools

Color Correction Layers


In terms of color correction, Photoshop has more than enough tools. Color balance, levels and curves adjustments, channel mixers, photo filters, and so much more. Those are usually the ones I cycle through because I’ve found that you don’t need much more than those have to offer in order to achieve the desired result for the photos.

Sometimes you’ll only need to use one or two and other times you’ll need more depending on the photo you are color-correcting, but I would encourage you to just play around with those until the values match your background image.

Lasso Tool


One other tool you should always use to help with the photobashing is the lasso tool. Using this tool you can make precise selections for areas you will put into shadow or want to put brushstrokes on. It can also help you out a lot with cutting out specific sections of photos to use, which makes their incorporation much easier.

I used this a lot for the top and bottom fins, the middle section where the guts of the vehicle go into shadow, and as a way to keep the silhouette of the vehicle clean by making selections around the edges and cleaning up inconsistent lines

Layer Masks


Another thing that will help is layer masking. I mainly use masking as a way to keep desired shapes clean without having to make the selection over and over again when I go back to work on a specific area or element of the design.

This will help save you a lot of time when you begin shading and lighting your design, especially if you have a lot of overlapping elements, such as the characters, harpoon gun, and windshield in my vehicle design.

Extra Storytelling


For this vehicle design image I decided to add a bit more storytelling by incorporating the weird glowing worm creatures using the same photobashing technique. A couple of worm photos and some glowing effect images warped into place with a bit of paintover to give it a bit of a unique feel.

It was just another extra element to sell the idea of what this vehicle is for. Was it just supposed to be a fast desert speeder for no reason? Or perhaps did the people of this dystopian civilization need to hash together a fast vehicle using parts from old vehicles in order to hunt down these strange worm creatures that skid around the desert?

It’s all a way to help one visually understand a design in a concise manner within one image. Now, I have no idea what they would do with these worms or why they hunt them, but that strange mystery is what makes it interesting.

Final Touches


Finishing touches are always the most relaxing part of the process because everything is already figured out. I personally like to create a flattened copy of the image to use as a blurred overlay layer on top of everything to help enrich the values a little bit and bring in a bit of bloom to the highlights. That coupled with a bit of color dodge and multiply layers to accent the lighting direction will make any image pop the way it deserves to. You could also give it a slight sharpen and chromatic aberration if you want to have that sharp photo feel to your image, but don’t overdo it. Just a tiny bit of that is all you need.

And we’re done, just sign and date your design and you’re good to go. I added a line of text at the bottom to make it feel like it was part of film or something, but that was just me being a bit extra. One thing I will note for these types of designs though is to not become overly attached to the sketch you photobash and paint on top of. More often than not you will come across some pretty cool elements and ideas from the photos you use that don’t exist in your sketch. If you can find a way to incorporate those into the design, I find that sometimes it can help make your initial idea cooler than you anticipated. You can tell that’s what happened to my vehicle design by comparing the sketch with the final product. Some things changed, while others stayed the same.

I hope this has been helpful for anyone that wants to create their own photoreal concept designs. I do have a humble little YouTube channel where I occasionally upload timelapse videos of my process, which may also be helpful to some, and I also have a couple narrated gumroad videos for anyone else who might be interested in the full real-time process. All of that, as well as my socials can be found linked below.